Conversationalist in brick

Overlooked in his own lifetime, Giles Gilbert Scott's architectural skill in uniting the past and the present make his buildings unforgettable.
Battersea power station from across the thames
A view of Waterloo Bridge, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, London 1949.
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It pains me to say this as a clergyman, as it is in my professional (not to say salvific) interest to see churches full, but I think Liverpool Cathedral is best when empty. I was there, for joyous and celebratory reasons, last weekend and despite it being a building I know and love well in its full, festal mode, I found myself selfishly wishing I might soak it all in alone, that I might be lost amidst its vastness and so better encounter the divine. Of course, even when full, most of the cathedral is space; the great arches and vaults allow the dissipation of light and sound back unto God. It is a place where eyes are drawn ever and only upward, and even the most hardened, atheistic retina scans brick and glass and space in wonder. Be it the blast of the organ or a whispered conversation – all are eventually absorbed into her muted immanence.

Yet it is no platitude to say that Liverpool’s secret is conversation: between gothic revival and modernism; between old and new; between man and God. Its architect was Giles Gilbert Scott, now often seen as a strange footnote, a late scion of the architectural dynasty who resold the Victorians the dream of the gothic. He was selected as architect for the project at the precocious age of twenty-two. There are marks of that youth in Liverpool; the light and sound play as much as they awe, the building not only inspires; she also charms. Yet Scott was no Mozartian prodigy, but rather became, and in his buildings remains, a stolid fixture of British civic landscapes – and his calling card remained conversation.

His insistence on design being a conversation between past, present and future has led to ridicule and the mark of outmodedness. Perhaps his most famous work is the red phone box, now a knick-knack of a twee, marketable vision of global Britain. They were once considered heralds of the future, much like the electric car or the contactless charging point today, but even their domed design represents a considered conversation with the past. Gilbert Scott famously fell upon their iconic design by meditating on the grave monument of the Georgian architect Sir John Soane, now the lone sepulchral survivor in St Pancras Old Churchyard. It is strangely apt that the boxes it inspired should so often lie unused or vandalised as tombs of a past means of communication; perhaps it is no bad thing to have a memento mori on every street corner.

Gilbert Scott’s other great works came in for criticism for their nagging sense of conversation with the bygone, even in his own time. In October 1940, JM Richards, the editor of The Architectural Review, writing valiantly under the pseudonym of James MacQueady, began a brutal editorial broadside on Gilbert Scott’s newly completed New Bodleian Library in Oxford with this lofty piece of mid-twentieth century opining:

‘…I have no hesitation in saying that the architect should have the courage of his convictions and not try to compromise with the conventions of the past, as a mistaken gesture of respect.’

Retrospectively, it seems strange, insensitive even, to have launched such an attack on historic architecture at the opening of the Luftwaffe’s erasure of the Coventry of the Medievals, the London of Wren, the Birmingham of the Chamberlains: they even imperilled the unfinished Liverpool of Gilbert Scott himself. Then again, those who consider themselves to be ahead of the aesthetic curve rarely care much for timing.

Indeed, ‘MacQueady’ was not alone in his contempt. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner described that same New Bodleian Library – now rebuilt behind its original facade and known as the Weston Library  – as ‘neither one thing nor the other.’ Of course he was right in a sense. From one angle it could be a galleried Jacobean manor, from another some strange relic of Babylon. The artifice in this case is not failure but genius. His power stations, Battersea and the equally striking Bankside (now the Tate Modern), two great monoliths of modernity on the Thames, might be, in a certain gloaming, fantastical temples of Phoenicia or Persia. Their scale and their strangeness was, and remains, also their charm.

In his hypercritical review, ‘MacQueady’ claimed to be writing from ‘the point of view of the man in the street, who can judge only what he sees.’ The problem was the previous year the same publication had run a competition to discover the best modern buildings in Britain in the eyes of ‘laymen.’ Gilbert Scott’s buildings had a noticeably good showing, with Battersea Power Station only just being pipped to the top spot by the-then new Peter Jones building on Sloane Square. Gilbert Scott’s ability to strike up conversation in brick between past, present, and future remains popular. In a 2015 poll of all British buildings, from Stonehenge to the Shard, Battersea came a creditable fifteenth, and was the only twentieth-century building to feature at all in the top fifteen. The person in the street judged what they saw, and liked it.

Crucially, Gilbert Scott’s silhouetting of yore in buildings like Battersea credits ‘MacQueady’s’ ‘man on the street’ with historical and cultural imagination; but the deliberate evocation of past stones in modern ones remains unpopular among architecture’s high priests, and Gilbert Scott’s continued (and noticeably rare) achievement of being a twentieth-century architect who remains popular still rankles some. In telling contrast to those previous surveys, a 2020 publication that asked architects to name Britain’s finest twentieth -century buildings listed only one by Gilbert Scott in the top fifteen: Bankside Power Station, and only then to credit the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron for the ‘transformation’ of Gilbert Scott’s building into more ‘impactful spaces.’

Yet compared to many of his architectural contemporaries, who saw themselves as ushers in of a brave new world, Gilbert Scott was a real prophet. The editorial of The Architectural Review finished in this manner:  

‘Even the greatest talent cannot steal the thunder of the moderns by accepting the liberties they offer without the responsibilities as well, responsibilities, which include the modern equivalent of the eternal verities: scale, proportion and the like. Modern emancipation is not intended to make architecture easier and vaguer, but more precise – only in a creative instead of an antiquarian way. Charm, in short, is not enough: it is the flesh of architecture without the bones.’

Of course there were plenty of architects in the first half of the twentieth century who did follow ‘MacQueady’s’ advice. There were men who believed wholly in the thunder of the moderns, who held to strident future verities, men whom nobody could accuse of cherishing charm. Whilst Scott built estates like Greywings in Surrey (a sort HG Wells and cottagecore lovechild), in continental Europe, Albert Speer and Marcello Piacentini of Rome’s EUR business district masterminded visions of pure futurism. For them, as for the pseudonymous MacQueady, there could be no conversation with the past – only the inevitability of the future, and an inevitably fascist one at that.

But Piacetini is now forgotten and Speer’s plans to transform Berlin into the Reich’s thousand year capital is but a historical hypothetical, his immortality now only found in the dust jacket of a Robert Harris novel. Scott’s is surely the greater glory; his is the architecture with real bones. Unlike those who looked solely ahead, in his strange, oft-dismissed buildings, Gilbert Scott succeeded in a conversation that translated the built language of the past into the future, whilst his critics thundered impotently into the modern abyss. Sometimes charm is enough.

Fergus Butler-Gallie

The Reverend Fergus Butler Gallie is an author of books, essays, and articles. He is a clergyman who has served in Liverpool and London.

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